Antigen Testing Update

I had an enlightening conversation with Dr. Jennifer Dillaha about antigen tests today. Here were the main topics:

  • When will the state start reporting antigen test numbers?
  • Is the state contact tracing current positive antigen tests?
  • When should someone get an antigen vs. a PCR test?

First, just a quick explainer that an antigen test isn’t an antibody test. An antigen test diagnoses a current infection, whereas an antibody test can tell someone if they’ve had Covid at some point in the past. Antigen tests can be run right there at the doctor’s office or the health department without being sent off and generally return a result within an hour.

With that out of the way, let’s get to it.

When will the state start reporting antigen test numbers?

The long and short of it: As soon as the CDC accepts the new recommendation of “Probable” cases to include antigen tests alone. Currently, the CDC only includes antigen tests as probable if the patient also meets certain symptom and/or exposure criteria. The Arkansas Department of Health isn’t receiving information on that second criteria (symptoms or exposure) when the positive antigen result is submitted.

The Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists has recommended the change to the CDC, and Dr. Dillaha said she hopes it will be accepted “very soon.” We’re talking days or a week. Once that definition is accepted, the state will be ready to report the numbers – not as confirmed cases, but as Probable cases. Some states already report antigen positives as Probable cases, as they are taking that second step to verify symptoms or exposure in the patient.

“We would have to interview people and try to determine that,” Dr. Dillaha said. “But that wasn’t how our system was set up.”

Currently, providers are submitting positive results via fax. Dr. Dillaha said the state has three fax lines dedicated to antigen results. This should change soon, as a system for electronic submission is “almost ready to go.”

Is the state contact tracing current antigen tests?

Yes, the state is currently treating positive antigen tests like positive PCR tests. They are being contact traced and entered (by hand right now) in the state database.

When should someone have an antigen test vs. a PCR test?

A lot of it comes down to the reason for the test.

Do you have symptoms? An antigen test is a good bet. It’s a quick turnaround and should be sensitive enough to detect Covid in a symptomatic person. If the antigen test comes back negative and you have symptoms, you will still want to follow up with a PCR test from your local health department or another provider.

No symptoms but you’ve been exposed? You’re going to want a PCR test. If you have trouble finding a provider that can do a test without symptoms right now, contact your local health department.

The Arkansas Department of Health is currently prioritizing antigen tests in local health departments for students who are symptomatic. Students who are asymptomatic will receive a PCR test, which generally comes back within 48 hours. Both of these will be free of charge to the student.

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Rob Wells

Rob Wells, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Journalism at the University of Arkansas School of Journalism and Strategic Media.

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The University of Arkansas School of Journalism and Strategic Media operates this site as an independent source of news and as a community service for Arkansas residents. Students produce the content here under the supervision of Rob Wells, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Journalism. The data presented here is collected at roughly the same time each day from the Arkansas Department of Health website.

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